France on the Eve of a Mass Strike?
On the eve of 7 March, Juan Chingo and Romaric Godin were interviewed by Marina Garrisi for RP Dimanche about the pattern of the current confrontation in France, its potentialities and weaknesses, as well as a series of strategic problems raised by the situation.
RP Dimanche: What accounts for the intansigence displayed by Macron on pension reform? Should it be seen as the hard line of a President who knows that whatever happens he can’t be re-elected? Or are there more structural reasons?
Romaric Godin: I’m not sure the fact that he won’t be standing is decisive here. The issue of what he’s done over the last six years goes beyond him as the figure at the head of the Élysée. For my part I see two things at stake.
The first is economic. In my book La Guerre sociale en France, I try to explain why social protest movements have become tougher since 2010. In 1986 and 1995 we saw retreats by the government. The 2003 pension reform was relatively ‘moderate’. In 2010 the social movement was nearly equivalent to what we are seeing now, with 1.3 million people in the street and blockades in transport, but the Fillon-Sarkozy government forced things through. Between 1995 and 2010, it was the evolution of French capitalism that was at stake.
If we study the introduction of neo-liberalism in France, we can distinguish two stages in its development. From 1983, in what is known as the ‘turn to austerity’, we have reforms that focus on the financial sphere and privatization, but do not directly involve the world of work. From 2010, there is a direct attack on the world of work, with pension reforms forced through and labour market reforms in 2015, 2016 and 2017. This occurred despite powerful social mobilization, with massive demonstrations and blockades in transport. After the crisis of 2008, French capitalism and world capitalism entered into a structural crisis. For the defenders of the capitalist camp, it’s moe difficult to agree to make concessions. Let’s be clear: there was no fundamental retreat by capitalists in the face of labour in previous decades! But confronted with a social movement, they found different ways of acting to support the profit rate, which for 50 years had been under very strong negative pressure bound up with the structural decline in productivity.
The declining productivity increases over the past 50 years is an attested fact. Faced with this kind of situation, capitalists only have limited solutions. First, there is a fictive capital, financialization and debt, but the system itself demonstrated in 2008 that it couldn’t go any further. The growth of the financial sphere has become independent of the productive sphere and depends on monetary policy: this is an additional pressure on capital. There was also globalization, which is now exhausted: China is seeking to escape the role allotted it by the international division of labour in the 1980s and 90s and added to that are the difficulties bound up with COVID. An increase in working time is the third solution: this can take the form of an extension of the working day, an increase over people’s lifetime, a growth in the rate of employment, a reduction under pressure of the hourly rate of labour, etc. All this involves the structure and regulation of the labour market in France and that is what was attacked in 1993, with the Balladur reform. But it is above all from 2010 onwards that we have been in the thick of things and that there is no longer any desire to make concessions.
Secondly, why, politically, could the 1986 and 1995 governements compromise and accept defeats at the hands of the movement? Even if largely bogus, right/left alternation put pressure on the government in office and compelled it to regard the social movement as a threat to its future re-election – even if the concessions invariably didn’t prevent electoral defeats.
Today, what provides the Macron government with assurance, following 15 years of crises and at a time when the country is exhausted? In the camp of capital, which is increasingly unified politically, there is the idea (to adopt Edouard Philippe’s expression) that ‘it passes’. And why does it pass? Because at each election the face-off with the extreme right results in the defence of democracy being brandished against it. The camp of capital prevails by default in line with the principle of the lesser evil. This does not explain 2010, but the change of situation from 1986, 1995 and 2003: the risk of alternation, certainly fictional, jeopardized the position of those in office. That is no longer the case.
Today, when you are in opposition, you can easily recycle yourself into the centrist majority – in short, Macronism. It is not for nothing that Olivier Dussopt [former member of the Socialist Party, now a minister in Macron’s government] is leading on the project. He comes from camp that was defeated heavily in 2012. Since then he has converted himself back into the victorious camp. This kind of centrality provides assurance that it will always pass, yet it plays with the risk that the extreme right will achieve power. A new feature is that the social movement is used to demonize anything to the left of Olivier Dussopt – which is quite a lot. But the most reformist left has abandoned the republican field, allowing the Macronists to find themselves facing off with the extreme right. For them this is the ideal situation. Every five years, it’s enough to present oneself for 15 days as a republican rampart and thus it goes on ad infinitum. Obviously, there’s a risk that it will go wrong, but such is their strategy.
Juan Chingo: I share Romaric’s structural explanation. That’s my analysis as well. With the crisis of 2008, we’re witnessing a radicalization of the bourgeois class in France. Whereas for the most eager sections of the bourgeoisie, Chiracism was synonymous with inertia and a lack of reforms, we can see that the first moment of the economic break and the turn to a more Bonapartist regime was Nicolas Sarkozy. This is what Stathis Kouvelakis shows in his book La France en révolte, mouvements sociaux et cycles politiques. The break was made there.
Despite the radicalization of the bourgeoisie, we should note that it hasn’t always succeeded in imposing its neo-liberal plan all the way. The French bourgeoisie would like more. It sees itself as lagging behind the other imperialist countries, especially Germany. In the context of a Bonapartist regime, it’s no accident that one of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first measures was to ‘regulate’ the right to strike with minumum service requirements. In Chirac’s time, as well as alternation, the tendency to outflanking we saw at work in 1995 or 2006, with the CPE [Contrat première embauche, a proposal for a new form of employment contract tabled by Chirac in Spring 2006 that would have made it easier to fire workers under the age of 26; defeated by popular mobilisation], acted as a reminder of the trauma of 1968. With the hardening of its camp, the bourgeoisie takes the risk not only of the extreme right, but also of greater violence between classes. The yellow vests were no accident; their radicalization and the radicalization of repression. If we look at 1968, there was still a fear of the street. This was no longer the case in 2003, because the CFDT [Confédération française démocratique du travail, one of France’s largest trade union confederations] halted the movement. This defeat was very costly for teachers, who still talk about it. It’s fascinating to observe that when Chirac died, everyone lamented this ‘sympathetic figure’ of French capitalism. Even if he was corrupt or openly neo-liberal, he tended to take care that social conflicts didn’t escalate. With Sarkozy, the neo-liberal turn became harder and deeper. Raymond Soubie’s advice to Macron on the basis of his successful experience in 2010 is clear: the street has to be faced down.
The current crisis is occurring in an international context of greater competition that puts French capitalism in a difficult situation. In this connection I think the war in the Ukraine is conducive to a harder line among the French bourgeoisie. Unlike a previous period when there was the illusion of peaceful development between imperialist powers, the increase in the defence budget shows this is no longer the case. This can be seen throughout Europe, including Germany, and it reinforces the pressure on France. So, we’re heading towards a form of capitalism that reinforces an already strong militarisation in France, as indicated by the project of compulsory SNU [Service national universel].
The economic and geopolitical context is changing: this is obviously a factor in the strategic thinking of the state, including from a financial point of view (we need to remember that France is a heavily indebted country). France’s international status is bound up with the issue of reform – whether it’s going to happen or not. At a time of increased competition with Germany, which has recently taken a military turn, the French bourgeoisie is destabilized internationally. These factors are important, because they demonstrate that the radicalization of Macronism isn’t only an ideological issue. Were that the case, a compromise would be possible. Trade-union leaders think it’s still possible to negotiate meaningfully on an issue like pensions; as far as they’re concerned, that’s what justifies their strategy of pressure. For my part (and on this I think we’re in agreement), I think the government’s radicalization has structural causes and that we need to draw the relevant conclusions strategically.
Romaric Godin: Yes, if the government’s been radicalized, it’s not because there’s a madman at its head. That’s not the point. We need to know why the government’s been radicalized and why it rejects any form of compromise or defeat. That’s the difference from 1986 and 1995: at that stage in France’s economic and social history, compromises were still conceivable.
In your articles, you both refer to a strategic impasse to characterize where the movement is currently at. Can you explain what you mean by that? And what distinguishes the present movement from recent experiences in the class struggle.
Juan Chingo: If we zoom out, it needs to be remembered that since 1995 France has always been in the vanguard of resistance to the Thatcherite and Reaganite neo-liberal offensive. And added to the specific character of French-style class struggle is the recent radicalization of the bourgeoisie just referred to, which makes the new cycle of class struggles that began in 2016 particularly interesting. From 2016 to today, there’s been a very interesting mix in the repertoire of class struggle in France, which has transformed it into a laboratory of class struggle, as in the nineteenth century and beyond. We might briefly retrace the stages in this new cycle, so as to understand how we’ve arrived at the present situation:
>In 2016 we see the development of cortêges de tête [equivalent to the black bloc on French demonstrations]and a sense of being fed up with the standard Bastille-Nation demos. Nuit Debout expressed a desire ‘not to go back home’ and we see a sort of diffuse anti-capitalism emerging. Anasse Kazib [young trade union militant and spokesperson for Révolution permanente] often recounts how he was radicalized at this time, for example.
>In 2018 we have the great rail battle. I remember there was enormous effervescence and determination among the rail workers, but the ‘rotating strike’ – a strategy proposed by the union leaderships and implemented by Laurent Brun of the CGT Cheminots [Confédération générale du travail-Rail Workers] – led to defeat.
>In 2018-19 we witness the uprising of the yellow vests. This was not a majority movement and the big battalions of the labour movement – the CGT and CFDT – positioned themselves against this mobilization, to the point of supporting the state against them. The yellow vests movement was a spontaneous, uncircumscribed movement. The state reacted to it ultra-violently, which led to a radicalization of the yellow vests, not only in their political awareness but also in their methods of action. This spectre is still present today, not only for the masses but also for the government, which was seriously frighened by this uprising, to borrow the term from the title of my book.
>In 2019 we have several instances of ‘yellow-jacketization’ of the working-class – for example, among workers on the métro. It must be recalled that it was the base of the RATP [Régie autonome des transports parisiens, Paris’s public transport operator] that imposed 5 December 2019 as the start of a rolling strike that lasted several weeks. In the pensions battle of 2019-20, we saw some elements of self-organization such as coordination between the RATP and SNCF [Société nationale des chemins de fer français, France’s state-owned rail operator], which in particular made it possible for the industrial action to continue during the Christmas holidays against the ‘truce’ defended by the union leaderships. But despite a renewable strike that was historic in the transport sector for its duration and mass size, and despite some exceptions, the strike action wasn’t able to extend itself to other significant sectors.
>More recently, we’ve seen the development of a series of strikes over wages. These phenomena are important, are continuing, and could combine with the ongoing pensions battle.
By retracing the thread of this cycle of struggles, we bring out a process of sedimentation and construction of a new working-class subjectivity, at least when it comes to methods of struggle. This is an enormous fulcrum that makes it possible to understand the determination that exists today and the awareness that, in order to win, it’ll be necessary ‘to go for it’. Today’s mass movement more or less consciously draws the lessons from the movements of recent years. Moreover, it’s interesting to note that even if the government’s standing its ground on a position of intransigence after four days of historical mobilizations, no demoralization is being expressed, but instead an awareness that things will have to be stepped up. And 7 March is set to be a historic date in this regard.
The article you wrote on Mediapart is interesting because it clearly shows that the perspective of a general strike is the subject not only of a discussion between intellectuals or journalists, but derives in the first instance from the movement itself. In tortuous fashion, and despite the weakness of the revolutionary left, the mass movement has drawn lessons from the experiences of recent struggles. This is surprising and full of potential. After 7 March, we shall see if the movement takes it a step further and if a new dynamic is unleashed.
Romaric Godin: It’s interesting to highlight the development of mass movements like you do. When it comes to the novelty of this action compared with past experiences, I believe that the first element is the radicalization of the government, as has been said. In 2010 there were big demonstrations, but there was no development, things didn’t change, the reform went through and the action came to a halt. Here one has a clear sense that there’s something rather different. People may imagine there’s still hope for a form of compromise as long as the reform hasn’t been adopted by Parliament. But we see a natural hardening of positions after a phase of mass mobilization. I think we shouldn’t denigrate that first phase, which was doubtless necessary to register the mobilization of opinion and convey general opposition. Now one senses that people have reached the conclusion that it wasn’t enough and something else has got to be done. This is something new, which enters into the framework of what you highlighted Juan – namely, that since 2016 we have this mass movement of struggle, as Rosa Luxemburg would say. One of the interesting points is the organization of the social movement, that is, the trade unions. They’re the ones who called for these mobilizations and the social movement has responded to those appeals. And here the great novelty is the very strong trade-union unity. Whereas previously, when there was union unity, it wasn’t very clear, we can see there’s very little purchase for peeling off unions like the CFDT, but also the CGC [Confédération générale des cadres] and CFTC [Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens], which are part of the movement and themselves defending a form of harder line. We can interpret their line in different ways and reckon, for example, that they’ve no choice, because if they didn’t they’d be outflanked by their base. In this regard, people are bound to think of what happened during the last Christmas holidays: a wildcat strike by SNCF inspectors that outflanked the union organizations, which are now bearing it in mind.
In other words, there’s a particular dynamic to this strike, which means that trade-union organizations can’t give up but can only go further. This is sufficiently important to be noted. I’m not sure the CFDT’s leadership was in agreement with calling for a blockade of the country at the outset of the action, but it was forced into it by the internal dynamic of the movement. And as the government isn’t compromising on anything, one’s compelled to escalate to get it to cede. This absolutely does not prejudge what’s going to happen in the end, but it’s a particular feature of the movement. And this is understandable also with respect to what you said – particularly as regards the ‘yellow vests’ movement. At the time it wasn’t a movement focused on the organization of work, on wage-earners. But it marked a further step in the class struggle in France on account of the repression it suffered, its organization, the fact that people were politicized in the movement, by the fact that the movement had a specific dynamic and inspired fear in the government. A social movement always involves a pretty complex alchemy: people are marked by the defeats of the past, but at the same time the experience of the yellow vests shows that something is possible if people raise their voices.
The last point about the specificity of the movement concerns the question of work. 2019 was against a wider reform of pensions, in a way almost more violent than the current plan. The difference today is that with an additional two years before retirement, people are asking: ‘Why?’ This immediately leads to a reflection of the kind: ‘Why am I working, what’s the meaning of my work, how can I go on working, how do I do this? I’m already unhappy at work – am I going to have to put up with another two years of it?’ And this immediately becomes contagious. This reform sets things alight by raising a question about the general nature of wage-labour – something that had completely disappeared. And behind that question, if we push it a little further, is ‘how do we produce, why, who for?’ And then questions arise. The climate crisis, for example, is also a question of production. This movement therefore has the capacity to conduct a much broader critique than a merely defensive movement faced with an attack on the welfare state. What I find interesting today is this potential for expanding the movement. The alchemy could take effect, with all the surprises social movements can hold in store.
Juan Chingo: We need to realize that the demonstrators’s radicalism is a response to the radicalization of the bourgeoisie and the government. To go back to what you said about the unions: this is certainly not the first time that the CFDT has been in a union coalition, but what is new is its centrality and its role as quasi-‘kingmaker’. There’s something revealing about this sequence: the fact that a figure like Laurent Berger, inclined to social dialogue, has been obliged to call for France to be brought to a standstill, even if it’s only for 24 hours, says something about the situation. We need to start from that, take this situation seriously, particularly as regards certain sectors, which have been beaten in the past and are understandably distrustful today. I’m thinking of the rail workers at the RATP or the refinery workers, for example, who’ve been in the vanguard of the movements in recent years. The positive side is that they don’t want to be the only ones who embark on a rolling strike. The negative side is that you have to have the determination to go for it. But the fact is that Berger and the union coalition were compelled to call for a stand-still, compelled from above because of the radicalization of Macron and the bourgeoisie, but also compelled from below, by the pressure of the mass movement. This is the movement’s strongest point and, at the same time, its weakest. The fact is that, more than any other form of class struggle, a general strike requires a clear, determined leadership – in short, a revolutionary leadership. For the time being, there’s no sign of such a leadership in the French working-class and it won’t materialize from one day to the next.
After 7 March, there’s going to be strong pressure on theunion coalition, especially from Berger and the more conciliatory sectors, to check the current dynamic, which involves a politicization of the issues, not to extend demands, to stick to withdrawal of the reform, etc. The issue is whether it’s possible to go beyond this situation. To go back Luxemburg, a general strike is not something that’s decreed. It is a historical moment and an explosion of the mass movement that waits for no-one. In this sense, the situation and subjectivity give us a glimpse that we could be moving towards a mass strike. But we have to see that there are factors working against dynamic. As the social movement builds up, as civil society comes to play a more significant role, the bureaucracy of the union organizations, despite the neo-liberal offensive and the crisis of intermediate bodies, can become an obstacle to this dynamic.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by ‘politicization’ of the current movement? And what conclusion do you draw from a strategic standpoint?
Juan Chingo: In fact this is something specific to the current movement. In the first article I wrote with Paul Morao on the movement, I highlighted the political as opposed to claims-based character of the movement, which, I believe, offers great potential. One of the limits of the pensions battle of 2019-20 was the difficulty the mobilized sectors, who had sustained the strike for nearly two months, experienced in extending the fight to those who weren’t directly impacted by the abolition of the various statutes. In fact, this was a crucial issue, which a number of movements have come up against: how, starting from strategic sectors, to construct a broader front in terms of demands and mobilized sectors. It is no accident if the yellow vests had registers of grievances.
Today, when you speak with more precarious sectors, you realize that these workers are against raising the retirement age, but also mention inflation, poverty wages, working conditions, etc. These issues are an integral part of what numerous sectors talk about. Here it is interesting to see how the union coalition treats it politically. It uses inflation to say that the most impoverished sectors cannot strike and proposes, instead, that they stage demonstrations on Saturdays. I think this strategy is an error and that the question should be how to extend the demands and prepare for a mass strike, by reaching out to everyone. If the current movement was extended to the issue of wages, the proletarian front would be stronger. Why confine oneself to the question of pensions reform and not take up the issue of payslips raised by numerous ongoing wage disputes? We can see that this dynamic exists and that some people are preparing to strike on 7 March to demand retirement at 60 for all, and 55 for the hardest occupations, while adding sectoral demands on wages. For example, this is what the garbage collectors in Sète or the workers at Roissy airport are saying.
To go beyond a defensive movement requires advancing a plan of struggle and wider demands to unify the class. This is what the union leaderships want to avoid at all costs. Contrary to what Berger says, I think the most impoverished sectors of our class can go on strike, as long as they can see what is at stake and prospects. If they see even the beginnings of a dynamic to change the situation, they could go into battle, including by striking. Those on low wages, those who do hazardous work, are not to going to commit themselves for timid action. But they might engage in a big battle and, if they see determination, go for it. The strategic logic I’m defending is the opposite of that advocated by Berger and the union coalition.
Romaric Godin: In fact, the politicization already exists. Today, the issue’s no longer really this reform, but how the movement is going to develop and what people will make of it afterwards. In this respect, I rather agree with you: the unions, for x or y reason – some because they want to preserve trade-union unity, others because theyare attached to a separation between industrial action and politics – operate according to a logic of non-politicization. They focus exclusively on pension reform. But they will have to be held to account. If the demand remains withdrawal of the reform and the reform is not withdrawn, they’ll have to explain how, with such a powerful social movement, with an expanding dynamic, as you have just explained, with a movement that combined with memories of the yellow vests, combined with issues of wages – how with all that, nothing was won. They are the ones who are following this strategy. So at some stage a balance-sheet will be required.
The difficulty of the current movement, unlike other key moments in the history of the working-class movement, is that there is no party to organize the movement, to lead the masses politically, to impel its expansion. In a sense, the movement has been left to its own devices, which could be a weakness. People know they won’t secure the withdrawal of this reform simply by demanding its withdrawal. The bourgeoisie is so radicalized that it’s not going to give in just because there’ll be a 0.2 per cent reduction in GDP in the first quarter of 2023. That’s not how it works – or not any longer. The stakes are so high that the bourgeoisie is prepared to lose 0.2 per cent of GDP or even 0.3 or 0.5 per cent. Because something more is at stake: smashing any form of resistance and disciplining the world of labour and, behind that, earning a lot more and maintaining their power. That’s what has to be identified, and I believe a growing number of people are beginning to do so.
Now, if we’re facing an issue of power, it’s because we’re confronting a political issue. The union coalition is going to find itself faced with this contradiction: fighting over a political issue without wanting to politicize the movement. So either you accept defeat, because you don’t want to move onto that terrain, or you play the game – which doesn’t mean you can’t lose, but at least you might win, and above all you might build something. The major difficulty is that this construction of the social movement has to be effected in the social movement itself. And we’ve come a long way: many of those who are ready to strike on 7 March were not part of previous social movements, or emerged from them disillusioned. Some even believed in François Hollande, Emmanuel Macron, even Nicolas Sarkozy. These people can learn on the spot and in the struggle, and this is the sense in which the movement has a lot of potential. This struggle requires space. If there is just one 7 March, it will be limited… What is at stake is continuing it.
You both defend the general strike as a strategic hypothesis to win. How does this perspective differ from such proposals as ‘renewable targeted strike’ or calls to ‘blockade the economy’?
Romaric Godin: I think we need to do away with the logic of the proxy strike – that is, a logic where there are sectors who form a bloc to strike while others support them, watch them on TV, or contribute to their strike fund. Our starting-point is a population that began from virtually nothing in terms of its sense of entitlement prior to this reform and where everything had to be built. The worst pitfall would be to keep this section of wage-earners in a passive role where it simply watches others going on strike for it. People support the strikers in opinion polls, but at some stage ‘they’re pissing us off’: because we’ve no longer got electricity or petrol or trains, we can’t go on holiday or take the métro. That was the strategy of yesterday’s world.
Now the question is: how to construct the subjectivity Juan referred to, a widescale social movement that is not purely defensive? It is by escaping passivity, by being an actor in the movement and the strike, someone who reflects on what they’re doing on a daily basis. It’s possible denigrate a section of the wage-earning class, thinking it involves ‘bullshit jobs’ that are worthless. Perhaps, but these jobs have a role in producing value in today’s capitalist system. If people stop working, they’re going to reflect on this: their role in the general economy. As a result, people realize that it isn’t only refinery workers or rail workers who have some weight in the economy. All the more so because so-called key sectors have an economic impact that the system can overcome. The movement must therefore be extended within the wage-earning class, to expand the demands. We can’t afford the luxury of a substitute strike.
What imperils the system is the issue of power, not money. This is something people often tell themselves stories about in industrial action. We find ourselves in the kind of economic fetishism that consists in saying: ‘we’ll stop the economy, and everything’ll stop’. But in March 2020 the economy was stopped and nothing stopped. And when it restarted, everything started up as before. Workers’ power is only a reality if it becomes effective, hence detached from the power of capital. Otherwise, people remain producers alienated from their own product. Thus we arrive at some fundamental questions: the separation between producer and product. What does a strike make possible? Reconciliation, reflection on the fundamental question of that separation.
This movement is formidable precisely because it makes it possible to respond to the radicalism of the opposing camp. I think that at the start of our discussion you highlighted this very well: the general strike, the mass strike, is not the fruit of some whim, it starts from an objective reality, a general discontent. The objective conditions of today’s industrial action possess interesting potential for building something bigger. Perhaps this potential won’t be realized in the current movment. In that case, maybe the latter will be a first step for the future. As long as one stops accepting the passive strategy of previous industrial action.
Juan Chingo: I’m with you on the fact that we musn’t have a binary view of the ‘all or nothing’ variety. With the movement’s current leadership, we can’t wager on all the contradictions of a mass movement being resolved at a stroke. But even in the context of defeat of demands, the movement can play a role for the future; and this is where we can play a role – I’m speaking from my position as a militant in a revolutionary political organization. We can play a role in the sense of developing to the maximum the most determined elements of subjectivity, so that they materialize, even if it only occurs in a few places. For example, organizing genuine general assemblies on 7 March, so that the workers take control of the strike and take over decisions from the union leaderships. That could be a decisive factor, given that lack of self-organization is one of the movement’s main weaknesses.
It is also for these reasons that I’m against the perspectives of the ‘proxy strike’. In reality, the day that impoverished sectors – that is, those most affected, oppressed by the capitalist system – get moving, then the movement’s political and even potentially revolutionary energy will necessarily increase tenfold, with their rage and creativity. This is a strategic problem for this strike, but also as regards conceiving revolution in France. The very fact of neo-liberal reforms and the harder line of the last 30 years requires us to ‘de-compartmentalize’our approach. Today, rail workers represent, for example, 10 per cent of freight. So it’s impossible to blockade the country without turning to the truck drivers. Similarly, people speak a lot about the refinery workers and their strategic role, which is real, but that’s not enough either politically or from a purely tactical and pragmatic standpoint, if you really want to blockade the economy. Some key sectors, moreover, such as telecoms and the post, which played key roles in 1995, are conspicuous by their absence today. Involving them again is a challenge.
For all these reasons, the ‘tactic’ of the proxy strike is dangerous for the movement’s future, for not only is it insufficient to really blockade the country, in that it makes do with so-called ‘traditional’ sectors and ignores others, but it is also insufficient when it comes to mobilizing en masse and, above all, explosively. To change the routine dynamic of the trade unions, it is necessary to seek out new battalions of the labouring class and, in particular, those who are most exploited – against the grain, then, of the slogans of the union leaderships. There’s a challenge for the most concentrated sectors of the proletariat to seek to create links with those sectors. If they understand the importance of such links, the potentialities are enormous. By contrast, a general strike that does not go all the way, and remains confined to some sectors, even if it disrupts the normal functioning of the economy and has an impact on daily life, will not be able to go on to victory. Let’s not forget that in 2010 the union coalition was not opposed to rolling sectoral strikes, but allowed them to develop without seeking to reinforce them, so that, deprived of an alternative, they ended up running out of steam.
As a result, what is at stake goes beyond the question of the ‘effectiveness’ of the strike: how, in terms of political strategy, do you impel the totality of the masses to get the state and the employers to cede? The general strike cannot rely solely on a few battalions, especially when confronting a radicalized bourgeoisie. In the class war, mass is what counts and this mass wins by showing that the struggle can profoundly change everyone’s living and working conditions. Today, the conditions are right for a major movement. The question remains how far these potentialities will be able to materialize with the current leaderships and given the weakness of alternative leaderships.
Romaric Godin: The situation seems particularly interesting to me precisely because the so-called strategic sectors don’t want to go it alone, while others – those subject to the most intense capitalist exploitation – can’t go it alone. There’s an opportunity here. In this context, the best way of shattering the movement would be to say you only need a handful of sectors. Moreover, we need to bear in mind that the French economy is largely tertiarized and that the majority of these services are services to firms – that is, correspond to what are generally denigrated as ‘bullshit jobs’. Now, this sector, which is generally ignored when it comes to strikes, in fact massively, even principally, participates in the production of commodity value. So we cannot proceed as if it didn’t exist and we must take account of these changes in the contemporary organization of French capitalism. It is, I believe, by understanding the specificities of that organization that we’ll manage to confront capitalism most effectively.
Juan Chingo: I agree with you, but we shouldn’t forget that a number of highly strategic and industrial sectors are still to be won to the struggle, such as Airbus, for example, and all the subcontractors of the big groups. No doubt this isn’t the Renault of the 1960s, but even so these sectors possess considerable weight that shouldn’t be overlooked. Currently, the aeronautic sector is led by FO [Force ouvrière], which is virtually a bosses’ union. But if these sectors could be drawn into the struggle, it would be a different story. If Dassault, Safran and the whole French aeronautical sector, the military complex, went into battle, it would mean that the situation was changing profoundly. I stress this to indicate that what are commonly called the strategic sectors are actually only two or three sectors (refinery workers, rail workers and, less frequently but especially strong in the present movement, energy workers), among numerous others that get overlooked, and whose entrance onto the stage would represent a really big change. The refinery workers’ strike last autumn shed light on certain limits that need to be understood. For example, sub-contractors in their entirety weren’t called out on strike, even though they’re an organic part of the petrol sector. Demands external to the refineries but relevant to the productive machinery of the Total firm – in the commercial circuit, for example – were not associated with the strike either. To get Total to cede, the refineries’ internal and external sub-contractors in their entirety have got to be unified. Exactly the same problem arises at the SNCF, where only the ‘rail workers’ are generally called out on strike, but not the hundreds and thousands of sub-contracted workers who work in the stations on the rail network. The proletariat’s power always emerges when it manifests itself in its entirety and not in corporatist fashion.
According to you, how far could a mass strike dynamic go?
Romaric Godin: I reckon that what we’re constructing today is above all an initial phase of reconstruction after decades of systematic destruction. The situation should inspire in us a certain humility. I don’t think that a mass insurrection is the most likely hypothesis, even if the movement will necessarily reveal its own potentialities, which may surprise us. I think that the challenge is the construction of a sustainable, deep-rooted social movement, which emerges from its defensive posture. And that is also why it is not stopping the economy as such that counts, but building a movement that raises the issue of economic power. Here I don’t share the anarcho-syndicalist frame of reference where a general strike would immediately and rather magically bring about the revolution, in as much as it’s supposed to dispossess the bourgeoisie of its power at a stroke, so that it would ‘fall’ following a total work stoppage.
Juan Chingo: The situation isn’t revolutionary, I agree with that analysis. However, we are on the eve of a potential mass strike. If it materializes, despite the contradictions we’ve referred to, I think it would open up unprecedented revolutionary possibilities that should be taken very seriously. Contrary to the conception deriving from revolutionary syndicalism, or the memory of the general strike of 1968 (which, given its scale, wasn’t that successful), a mass strike would be one of the most violent forms of class struggle. I don’t know what 7 March will bring, but if we enter a phase of generalization of the strike, we should seriously think about setting up picket lines, for example. That is why we need to instill the slogan of an active strike, not ‘France at a standstill’, as Laurent Berger bangs on. For now, the government isn’t afraid, but that could change. If a general strike gets underway, it’ll be necessary to rise to the occasion so as not to let the opportunity slip and to go onto the offensive. In any event, the potentialities exist and must be fully realized.
To conclude, a word on how you conceive the articulation between the mass movement and parliamentary action. What do you make of the debates in the National Assembly?
Romaric Godin: What the debates on the first reading have shown is that nothing transpires in the lower chamber. That is why the National Assembly has literally become a circus, in that what unfolds amounts to a spectacle without any substance. Of the left we should begin reflecting on the fact that, under this regime, Parliament has no power. Even the absence of an absolute majority changes nothing, given the role of the various constitutional articles such as 49.3, employed including in the context of a draft finance law amending social security, and without political consequences. Thus Parliament is largely discredited. Without going so far as to adopt a radical anti-parliamentary position, we might say that parliament can above all be useful in making itself the echo of the social movement. But we must recognize that it possesses a highly demobilizing dimension, in that it leads people to believe that something is being played out there. Whatever, the government only really discusses with the Republicans. Besides, the blocking amendments serve no purpose and even end up distracting attention from the real movement. Once again, that is not where things are decided.
Even so, it makes it possible to raise the question of the articulation between the parliamentary left and the protest movement, and I’m rather surprised to find that in such a profound and vast movement the logic of parliamentary guerilla tactics persists. From the beginning, the writing has been on the wall: either a yes vote with LR [Les Républicains] or 49.3. So what game is the parliamentary left playing with the social movement when the die has been cast from the start? The emptiness of the parliamentary spectacle seems to me to be a factor specific to the Fifth Republic, which persists in pretending that something is happening when the key thing is played out in the office of 55 boulevard Saint Honoré, where some guy on his own decides everything. That’s how it is and the parliamentary left may tell itself stories, but since 1958 no-one has been unaware that France is not a ‘great parliamentary democracy’. By contrast, we must realize that in the strong sense of the term something is happening on the streets. So we’re not going to advance on this terrain with amendments; and to pretend otherwise is a diversion.
Juan Chingo: I share what Romaric’s just said. It’s obvious that Parliament is not the site of opposition. The situation described is an opportunity to take up certain elements of the radical democratic programme, such as abolition of the Senate or cancellation of the presidential role and, more broadly, the supersession of the Fifth Republic, not from the limited perspective of Mélenchon’s plan for a Sixth Republic, but much more radically, in the image of the Paris Commune for example. French history has displayed forms of Parliament that reflect the state of mind of the masses, like the early days of the Convention or, as I was saying, the Paris Commune where parlimentarians were on a wage equivalent to that of workers and subject to popular control.
Here the sincere comrades of France insoumise would gain from reviving the best of the Jacobin revolutionary tradition or, rather, the Commune, in order to develop elements of such a democratic programme, like the creation of a single Assembly, at once legislative and executive, rather than squandering this perspective in that of a republican refoundation from above. That would greatly help the mass movement to experiment with bourgeois representative democracy and make it possible to develop the consciousness of self-organization, which in my view constitutes the only viable democratic perspective. The social movement must be given expression by and for itself, in its own bodies, not seek to exist in the Assembly through the intermediary of a representative, disarming vote, or look for a political but institutional outlet as proposed by Mélenchon. Development of the general strike and development of the self-organization of the masses outline one and the same horizon: the development of an authentic counter-power to the power of the bourgeoisie.
Romaric Godinis a journalist in the economics unit of Mediapart and author of La Guerre sociale en France. Juan Chingo is a columnist at Révolution Permanente, author of Gilets jaunes, le soulèvement and a member of the directorate of Révolution permanente. Both have closely followed the political situation and class struggle in France in recent years.
Interview transcribed with the help of Marc Elba, Suzanne Icarie and Dominique Valda
Translated by Gregory Elliott